Abortion Safety Denialism

Amanda Marcotte makes an interesting and important point today in a column at RH Reality Check: the kind of bogus “science-based” skepticism conservatives have used to such good effect on subjects like climate change and even evolution is now finding voice in the anti-choice movement:

[A]nti-choicers seem to be favoring this strategy over old-school declarations that embryos have a right to life, which supersedes a woman’s right to her own body. The idea is to create the illusion—in other words, flagrantly lie—that there is a serious medical debate over the dangers of abortion to a woman’s physical and mental well-being, and use that to argue that a bunch of laws making it harder to obtain abortions are necessary.

As Sofia Resnick recently documented for RH Reality Check, lying about the dangers of abortion for women is the go-to method for passing abortion restrictions at the state level these days. And, when the restrictions are inevitably challenged in court, the sleazy operators declaring themselves “experts” even as they spew unscientific, falsified information are being called up to give testimony to justify these restrictions.

It’s the “challenged in court” part that may explains a lot of this new strategy:

In 2007, Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion justified the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold a ban on the intact dilation and extraction later abortion procedure by leaning heavily on anti-choice misinformation, which claimed that women are in great danger of being traumatized and unable to heal after getting abortions. That’s not true, but Kennedy apparently wished it were—so he made his decision on wishes and not facts. That’s almost surely the main cause for the current explosion of laws being passed with a bunch of lies about abortion risks as their justification. Anti-choicers have good reason now to believe the highest court in the land will play along with their game of telling convenient lies to get their way.

In effect, Kennedy enabled a peculiar collateral attack on abortion rights at what had earlier seemed to be their strongest legal point in decisions prior to Gonzales v. Carhart: that the health of the mother was an important factor to consider in weighing the legality of abortion in specific cases. This opened up new vistas for antichoice legislation, especially at the state level, which Republicans took up avidly since 2011. But Marcotte thinks phony solicitude about women’s health has a broader utility for antichoicers:

[I]t could also be that trying to make the “moral” argument is clearly never going to work. Americans may ascribe value to embryonic life, but most of them just don’t think it should be considered more valuable than a woman’s right to control her body. No matter how much anti-abortion propaganda conservatives have put out there, the needle hasn’t really moved on this question: Most Americans believe abortion should be legal, and first-trimester abortions in particular aren’t very controversial. People don’t, as a general rule, like voting away their rights. Some may think abortion is wrong, but they’d like to keep their options open.

In light of this, the shift away from trying to make a moral argument makes perfect sense. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, it’s actually easier to confuse people on the issue of facts than it is on the issue of values. After all, our values reside inside us, making it ineffective for people to claim they truly know what they are. But facts live outside of us. Most of us only “know” what the facts are by listening to experts, so all anti-choicers need to do is put forward some people claiming to be just that. And voila! The issue is successfully confused.

My own guess is that serious antichoice advocates, many of whom are convinced we are living through a 40-year-long American Holocaust, are extremely flexible about their lines of argument, and not terribly concerned about revealing their goals and motives if it’s inconvenient to The Cause. So whatever works at any given moment in any given venue is fine to them.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.